French cinema in Brighton (1) 1896-1907

School-friends Jemima and Annabel are swapping their experiences of a new invention.

Albion House,

135 King’s-road,

Brighton,

Saturday, 4th July, 1896

My Dearest Jemima,

How I love being on holiday in Brighton!  We’re staying in Mr Hockley’s boarding house on the corner of Preston Street and my room has a view of the sea and the West Pier. Everything is so exciting but last night was really special.  I cut out the advertisement for you from the Brighton Gazette on Thursday.  Mother, Father and I just had to go and see what it was all about.

It wasn’t far.  We crossed the bottom of Preston Street, and as we approached the building, I could see the word Animatograph written across the front.  Once all the guests were inside, the lights were turned off, although the hall was not in complete darkness as it was still daylight outside.  We were then asked to look at a blank screen and suddenly we could see pictures of people and objects moving on it.  It was extraordinary.  There was a Mr Henton, who was in charge of the display, and he said this was the first time such animated pictures had been seen outside London.

The “show” was run by a Mr Paul who had brought his own equipment from London and he himself manipulated the device.  Thrown onto the screen were moving pictures of the final part of a horse race, which mother said was the Derby.  The next few minutes were taken up with a boat scene here in Brighton. It was not very interesting at the beginning, but I could not help laughing at the troubles of the passengers as they landed on the beach from the boat. And for a whole minute we sat watching animated pictures of young people at the entrance to the West Pier.  I saw no point in that.  We could look out of the window of the studio and see the same thing.

(Jemima, you’ll see The Victoria Hall on the extreme right and Albion House is just on the other side of Preston Street, facing this way.  Thank goodness all that work on the beach has been finished.)

The entertainment was all very droll, but the pictures which so caught my attention were those of the Paris express arriving at Calais.  I do long to go to France, so it was thrilling to see a place where I might go myself one day.  Mr Paul had shown us the narrow ribbon of photographs he was going to use in his machine, but when the great train appeared on the screen it was huge.  I was sure it was going to come at us and run us all down. But then the train slowed down as it drew into Calais station and we saw all the passengers getting off and all the bustle of any station.  It was a very exciting two minutes.

There were other short displays of moving pictures, but I found them a little repetitive, although there was a conjuring performance which I did enjoy.

I found the whole “show” somewhat strange with these dumb people moving about, but there was some music playing and that made me feel a little more comfortable.

Your affectionate friend

Annabel

Kingsville House,

100 King’s-road,

Brighton,

Friday, 25th September, 1896

My dear Annabelle,

Brighton has gone mad for animated pictures.  When we arrived on Saturday, Ma, Pa and me were just walking down Queen’s-road from the station with all our valises when we saw a big sign outside the Imperial hotel.  You remember Queen’s-road, I’m sure.  I bought this photograph in a shop for you, but Pa says it is at least 10 years old.  Queen’s-road was like that when he was a younger.

Anyway, Pa said there was going to be a display of something called the Cinographoscope, so when we got here we checked in the newspaper. Pa said we could go at 8 o’clock so that I could be in bed by 10. 

Here’s the advertisement like the one you sent me in July.

It was just like you said for the Animatograph, there was a white screen so we just sat down and waited to see what would be thrown on to it.  This is where you will be jealous … One of the first animated pictures was of the Place de l’Opera in Paris.

We could see carriage folk and pedestrians moving in all directions.  But the funniest part of the show was when everybody starting moving backwards and then forwards again.  I know you would not approve as you are such a Francophile.  But it was a lark.  I hope we can go to the “cinographoscope” again before the end of our holidays.

Your most affectionate friend

Jemima

Albion House,

135 King’s-road,

Brighton,

Saturday, 8th May 1897

Dearest Jemima,

When we arrived, we all thought we would have a least one evening’s entertainment at The Alhambra, just along the Promenade from here.  They always include a short sequence of animated pictures, so we were looking forward to it.  But then in Thursday’s newspaper, The Argus I think it was, I read the dreadful news about the fire at the Bazar de la Charité in Paris.  According to the newspaper hundreds of women had packed a charity bazaar in a temporary, barn-like hall.  In one corner, there was a demonstration of the Cinematograph.  The operator looked away for a moment and the ether in the projection lamps caught fire.  Everything caught fire and within 30 minutes, 126 people were dead.

So no visit to any theatre showing for us this holiday.  You only have to look at this picture I found to see how awful it was.

It is a great pity.  We really are too scared to go to any of the theatres showing moving photographs as I dearly wanted to see the Mr Paul’s film of Nicholas II, the Czar of Russia.  The Czar and Czarina visited Paris last October and I’ll tell you the funny story which I heard about Mr Paul.

Apparently, Mr Paul had made every effort to acquire permission to film the Czar’s procession though the town of Versailles.  Permission was apparently withheld every time, so Mr Paul paid the sum of 500 francs to hire a room overlooking the route. He asked a lady to stand in front of his camera until he was ready to take his series of photographs and just at the right moment, the lady stood aside and Mr Paul was able to capture the moving procession.  According to Mr Paul, this upset the policeman on the other side of the street who had Mr Paul under surveillance.  The poor gendarme was powerless to act – and now Mr Paul’s moving pictures can be seen at all the theatres which exhibit the Animatoscope.

Anyway, my dearest Jemima, for these holidays it’s the music hall for us, and definitely one that shows no living pictures.

My love to you and your Mother and Father

Annabel

Albion Hotel,

Brighton,

Tuesday, 3rd September, 1907

My dearest Annabel,

All the excitement of the wedding is not over.  Me and my new hubby (oh it does sound queer to say that) are here for our (very short) honeymoon.  I’ve never dared set foot in such a grand place to stay before.  We arrived late on Saturday night and … well I won’t go into details about Sunday.  On Monday we promenaded in all our finery and then in the evening Joe said it was time for some entertainment, so off we went to, of all places, the Mellsions Grand Skating Rink in West Street.  I found this old photograph.  Do you remember the rink, just on the right there?

Joe said that as it was our special week, we could have the 1/- seats and that I was too elegant (me!) to sit up in the balcony in the 3d seats.  Well what we saw was astonishing and you would have so enjoyed it.  We saw a funny film called “A Chase and Capture by the Noted French Police dogs” (my Joe knows lots about the cinematograph and he says it’s a film called Les Chiens de police (hope I’ve got that right – you were always so much better at French than I was) made by someone called Pathé.  (I always thought pathé was something you ate on bread.) Anyway, we saw climbers going up the Mont Blanc (I suppose that’s in France?) but the one you would have liked best showed all the dancing and movement of the Carnival at Nice. There was music and every now and again, words (in English, thank goodness) came up and explained what was happening.  I do hope you will be able to see some of these pictures in London.

Well, must go now.  Joe is waiting.  We are off to the Palace Pier Theatre to see Ruffell’s Imperial Bioscope. Joe is a bit like you really – he loves French films, so apparently there are two at the Palace Pier. “The Aeronaut’s first appearance” he wants to see because, of course, its about those lovely new aeroplanes.  In French he says it’s Les Débuts d’un aéronaute (actually I heard it’s a comedy with Max Linder but I won’t tell him) and along with that there is “The Watchdog” another French comedy. Quite honestly, dear, some of the other English and American films sound rather dull … but whatever Joe wants!  Must keep hubby happy.

In haste, Yours

Jemima.

Unfortunately, Annabel and Jemima lost touch soon after Jemima’s wedding. No further letters exist. They both express their gratitudte to Mr James Gray for the use of photographs from his collection.

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